Here’s the deal with Aaron Sorkin, at least when it comes to “The Newsroom.” When the screenwriter attempts to be funny, throwing screwball antics into his sober drama about the American media, it brings the show to a grinding halt. Over the show’s first two seasons, and with each entry in the truncated final third, this has been in evidence time and time again, and in this week’s “Contempt,” the clash between clunky humor and compelling drama is all the more pronounced, as “The Newsroom” is looking more and more like it will be going out on a familiarly flawed footing rather than with the punch the first couple of episodes promised.
Case in point is the introduction of a subplot involving Wyatt Geary (Keith Powell), ACN’s new HR VP, who makes it a personal mission to prove that Don (Thomas Sadoski) and Sloan (Olivia Munn) are in a relationship. So what has been the purpose of this time consuming endeavor? One that is already pointless when it’s revealed that Sloan wrote a letter to HR confirming her relationship with Don? “Fun,” says Wyatt. It’s an eyeball-rolling moment, one that underscores that the entire necessity of the subplot was nothing more than time filler. In previous seasons, I’ve mentioned that “The Newsroom” would’ve been better served in half-hour portions rather than bloated hour-long helpings, and “Contempt” really drives that argument home.
Because really, how much more Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) and Maggie (Alison Pill) tension do we need? Their on again, mostly off again relationship has for the most part been one of the more tedious elements of “The Newsroom,” and once again, the flicker of a flame of them getting back together sparks. After Hallie (Grace Gummer) publishes a not so thinly veiled piece about her love life following a fight with Jim about her job (about which he has become a complete asshole, falling a bit out of step with his character), they have a showdown that ends in their breakup. Talking about the story with her boyfriend Jack (Jimmi Simpson), Maggie defends Hallie, but the professor says he can see right through her: “You’re into Jim, but you don’t want to be a jealous cliché, so you defend Hallie for show. And that’s a classy thing to do, but at some point we’re going to have to discuss how that makes me feel to know that any man in your life is going to be runner up.” Sigh. If this show were twenty or thirty minutes shorter, both the HR subplot and this romantic angle could’ve been snipped with nothing lost.
So what’s going on in the main narrative? Well, the various plot pieces get pushed a little further along. Will (Jeff Daniels) is headed to court where he is ultimately ordered to give up the name of the source. In a nice character moment, Will admits that he doesn’t necessarily agree with the “cost benefit” of withholding the name, in an era where so few people can do so much damage, but the newscaster declares that “he’s just not allowed to” identify the leaker. Will gave his word, and he’s going to stick by it. Finally, he adds that a prison charge for contempt can only be coercive, not punitive, and that no matter how long he’s behind bars, he won’t give up the source. The judge challenges him on this point and orders Will into custody by the end of day.
Meanwhile, the race is on to try and get the story on air as fast as possible, but there’s a problem — the person who wrote the fake news story that caused thirty-eight deaths is still embedded in Kundu with his family and he needs to be out before they can responsibly go to air. Phone calls are made to various officials, strings are pulled, the story is ready to go and then, just hours before they are set to report it, there’s one other problem: Reese (Chris Messina). For all his talk earlier of wanting to stand behind ACN and allow them to report the news, he tells MacKenzie (Emily Mortimer) that the story has to be killed — Lucas Pruit’s legal team doesn’t want to face the legal fees that will come in the wake of the story airing, and with the sale of ACN in the balance, they have to concede to their demands. And needless to say, MacKenzie and the team are devastated.
And it wasn’t without much effort that Charlie (Sam Waterston) tried to get another buyer. He’s had enough of arrogant, prankster-ish Lucas Pruit (BJ Novak), whose method of management seems to be one of merely exercising how much he can bend people to his power and will. And there seemed to be salvation in a possible sale to mogul Antoinette Dodd…but it was never real, as she was just using it for leverage to drive her own stock prices up.
But not everything is lost. The Kundu story lives, just not at ACN, with all the files being sent to a reporter at Associated Press. And before Will goes to jail, he and MacKenzie have decided to get married right away. And this decision enacts one of the worst montage moments “The Newsroom” has ever seen, a sickly sweet collection of scenes with members of the ACN team (who apparently don’t have any work to do?) going out and buying various items for the quickie wedding (and it must be the only moment in Magnolia Bakery history where they didn’t have a line and no one else was in the store). Again, it’s a lengthy time filler, that wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t so clumsy, saccharine, cliché and scored to one of the most cloying renditions of “Ave Maria” you’ve ever heard in your life. It’s almost a relief when the episode ends with Will in cuffs and going to jail. [C-]